Sunday, February 26, 2012

Robocalls: Making the Case for Engagement

Much has been written over the past few days about the use of robocalls, particularly during the 2011 federal election. We have all had them. Usually during dinner. Their timing is great...#sarcasm

At the heart of the story are a growing number of allegations that robocalls were targeted at Liberal and NDP voters in swing ridings, informing them that the polling station had changed. These calls have been traced to a company in Edmonton with ties to the Conservative party.

At this time it is not clear who was responsible for these calls, nor whether they were part of a Conservative party-orchestrated plan to mislead or disenfranchise those who would typically vote for other parties (text vetted by crack team of A Guy Watching Politics lawyers). However, should the allegations be proven it would not bode well for the image of the Conservative party.

Now let's be honest with one another. There is no real chance that anything will change on the Hill between now and the next federal election. We will not re-cast our votes, regardless of how any debate or investigation might play out.

Yes, the government could be embarrassed. Potentially people could lose their jobs, and perhaps face criminal charges. But the government will remain the government until as late as 2016.


If you were the government and you had to choose when to have a scandal emerge, this would be the time. Unlike the Auditor General findings which unleashed the sponsorship scandal in the later years of a Liberal mandate, this issue comes at the beginning of a Conservative one. All to say, they have time on their side.

This is where you come in, dear voter.

These allegations are part of a pattern; a pattern of a party which remains in perpetual campaign mode. As much as the election around the corner flowed from successive minority Parliaments, it also flowed from a Conservative government which has never seemed able to resist its more base, partisan instincts.

It is also a pattern characterized by an avoidance of accountability and a rejection of the principles upon which the Conservative party first successfully won power - accountability, transparency, and the elimination of scandal from Ottawa.

This is why we need to remain engaged. These issues are not just about things that happen in Ottawa.

- Misleading voters about the plans of a sitting MP is, in the Speaker's words, reprehensible.
- Labelling opponents of legislation with child pornographers is despicable.
- And supporting (or turning a blind eye) to efforts to disenfranchise those would vote against you is borderline criminal.

The government is not going to change between now and 2016. But we can. We need to be more vigilant and engaged. The voter should not fall victim to the idiom that time heals all wounds; that in four years time no one will remember or care.

We need to challenge ourselves to define what we expect of government, and then explore all efforts to hold government to account. This is what engagement means.

Thank-you robocalls for the reminder.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Follow the Leader?

The question of leadership is in vogue right now. In Canada we have two federal leadership campaigns either underway or imminent, while in the United States we have the current battle for the Republican nomination after which comes the campaign for President.

While there are numerous and obvious differences between these contests in terms of policy and party dynamics, each one is giving visibility to the notion of leadership and the expectations we have of those elected to lead. For some, a leader is simply a manager. Others seek a visionary. For many substance and policy take a backseat to electability and the ability to deliver power.

In truth, a leader needs to be all of these things. They need to articulate a vision and direction, not just for the party of which they are a member but for the broader electorate. They also need to demonstrate an ability to provide effective stewardship. While this can mean different things depending on your political stripe, in the end it comes down to being able to demonstrate competence.

All of this leads us to that third category - the ability to deliver power. Electability is the ultimate litmus test for any leader, but it is often the one most difficult to gauge at the time of a leadership campaign.


At its heart, a leadership campaign is made up of two simultaneous conversations. The first is a conversation between the candidates and party members. As such, the starting point of the conversation contains a lot of common ground and shared principles. Everyone is on the same team, so to speak.

However, a parallel conversation is also taking place between the candidates and the broader electorate, particularly those who are not committed to or aligned with one political party.

What's important here is that these voters do not necessarily share the same views as those committed party members, and in some cases might outright oppose them. Nevertheless, increasingly the path to victory depends on these non-aligned, swing voters.

The ongoing campaign for the U.S. Republican nomination provides a good example of the challenges a leadership candidate faces as they look to strike that delicate balance between winning the party faithful, and appealing to the swing voters.

Mitt Romney is the preferred candidate of the Republican hierarchy. Why? Because he is seen as the candidate most likely to attract moderate, centrist voters - the voters who will decide the Presidency. But before he can fight that battle, Romney needs to win over the rank and file of a fractured Republican party and conservative movement.

His challenge is that these members, and in particular those aligned with the tea party and the Christian conservative elements of the party, don't see themselves in him. As much as he may speak to the broader electorate (a debatable point, yes), he does not speak to large swaths of the party he wishes to lead.

All of this puts Mr. Romney in something of a trap. To win over the party he has to take positions and adopt rhetoric which appeals to them. Doing so, however, will hamper his chances with swing voters should be win the chance to take on President Obama.

What he needs to do is articulate a vision for both - something which will be extremely difficult to do in such a fractured political environment.


What, dear reader (hello, anyone?), does this have to do with Canada? For me, it serves as a good reminder for those who aspire to lead the NDP or the Liberals (or both...?) of the importance of not losing sight of those two, parallel conversations.

The candidates vying to replace Jack Layton know that winning over NDP members will not guarantee them Official Opposition status after the next election, never mind power. They also need to remember that the positions they take now as they appeal to the rank and file have the potential become future talking points issued by their opponents. The same holds true for the Liberals.

So what is a candidate to do?

- Speak to Canadians.
- Articulate a vision that bridges the gap between the party and the country.
- Define what your government will stand for and present a credible path towards achieving the goals you set out.
- Avoid the trap of simple solutions, such as "cut this" or "tax that."
- Be honest about the challenges we face and the choices we will need to make.
- Engage people by speaking to both their worries and their dreams.
- Be yourself; authenticity is critical.

The candidate that can best measure up against this scorecard stands the best chance of winning the leadership and positioning themselves for a general election. Anyone up for it?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What good is policy if you can't debate it?

Closure is a word that people outside of Ottawa more commonly associate with turning points in their lives. A break-up, coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, or more generally dealing with major events such that we can move forward. For many it is part of a healing process.

Not for the first time, things take on a different meaning in Ottawa. These days, closure is a word used by politics watchers as they consider a Parliament in which debate on key policy issues is limited and then cut off by the government.

It has become the go-to tool of the new majority government and, much like the way the election around the corner killed debate under successive minority governments, the use of closure is depriving us of meaningful discussion at the very time we need it.

Woe Canada.

There are some great policy issues which deserve a spirited dialogue, regardless of the side of the fence on which you sit. The crime bill, gun registry, the wheat board, pension reform - debates which have come and gone, and which were cut short.

What will happen with the 2012 Budget? With proposals on reform to Old Age Security? How thoroughly will our Parliamentarians debate new trade agreements, or changes to immigration policy?

We all deserve an opportunity to hear about the perceived merits and limitations of the policy initiatives brought forward by the government. This is why we have a Parliament.

Circumventing that in the name of expediency is wrong. Arguing that in electing a majority government, Canadians gave tacit approval to an agenda that was not discussed during a campaign is simply false. And replacing evidence-based policy with initiatives driven by conviction is, to be frank, scary.


Canada, like so many countries, is at something of a cross-roads. The world is changing around us. Whether we are talking about the environment or demographics, the economy or security, we are faced with difficult and potentially defining choices.

Faced with these choices, we need to remind ourselves that the biggest challenges and greatest opportunities deserve the broadest possible debate.
Canadian Blogosphere